Rachel Kellner, owner of century old Aigner Chocolates in New York City, recently had the opportunity to speak at Queens College. She looked at the young crowd and told them what she wished she’d heard at the same age — you can try to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life now, but it will probably transform drastically over the years. She speaks from personal experience.
Serving the community where she was most needed
Initially, Rachel wanted to go into social work. “I felt if I could make a difference in one person’s life the way my guidance counselor did, that would be the true meaning of success, and having a purposeful life,” she says. She landed in an outpatient substance abuse center on Staten Island, where she fell in love with counseling the population there. “It was unbelievably motivating,” she says of her decade there, and prompted something in her to move into entrepreneurship herself.
She was drawn to the food industry, finding healing through food. She continued her clinical work in Gestalt therapy training, but one day came across a chocolate shop listed for sale. She hesitated. She was drawn to buying it, but it was much different than that life path she spoke to the college students about. Her brother urged her forward. “You could spend your entire life in therapy working on your resentment…or you could take the opportunity,” he told her. She did.
Taking a chance
But it wasn’t just chocolate sales she had in mind. She wanted to give back. In spite of being robbed during the pandemic, she was able to donate $30,000 worth of chocolate to those in need. The lines between her mental health and social work background blurred further, in the best of ways, through her new business.
“This chocolate shop has become the manifestation of food is therapy,” Rachel says. She wasn’t finished yet. She started an informal business alliance in her shop’s neighborhood with “incredible” community-wide events. TD Bank’s local stores are embedded in the community and collaborate with local business owners to see how they can help.
Rachel was introduced to her TD Relationship Manager, Victor Alvarez, through a mentor. And it happens that the TD Store Rachel uses is very close by in the neighborhood. She is quick to point out, "TD Bank has been a huge part of our growth. Victor and the Store are incredibly responsive to our needs."
With Victor, the appreciation is mutual. "Her business is her heart, she puts her soul into it, and it's something that I love to be a part of at TD."
Julie Pukas, TD Bank’s head of commercial strategy, says TD stores intentionally choose hours that are most convenient for local business owners, including Sunday hours. That is one of the ways they aim for accessibility.
“We also give customers the option to consume information the way they want, on their schedule,” Julie said. For some that means coming to the customer in the evening after their shop closes or chatting about their needs at these community events.
“Some banks say, ‘What do you need?’ But we have a dialogue with our customers and take our customers through questionnaires to make sure we are digging deep, then advise them with specific, handpicked recommendations," Julie said.
With their help, eight years later, Rachel’s past endeavors are combined successfully with her current business, and the irony isn’t lost on her — “It is certainly now so much easier to make people happy with a piece of chocolate,” she says.
One of the ways TD has helped her achieve her business goals is by providing a line of credit and increasing the line as the business has grown.
"The growing aspect of what she has done, as we continue to grow with her, unlocks everything that we have here at TD. That's the whole purpose of having a Relationship Manager," Victor says.
From a SWOT analysis – used to evaluate a company's competitive position and help develop strategic goals – to necessary contacts, to the right certifications, Julie says TD Bank empowers customers to do what they love.
Navigating the ups and downs of entrepreneurship
But the road wasn’t without challenges, and she needed much more than family and friends in her village to persevere through those — a gap that TD Bank filled for her by offering advice and solutions to help run the business. Sometimes, for example, Julie says some new business owners might need a line of credit to buy additional inventory or might need advice as they grow their business. “We provide help with cash management needs, lending needs, and more,” she says.
As a woman-owned business, Rachel also has to wear many hats. She has had to balance taking time off for her son, while she continues to operate the shop—a sick kid around Easter is a chocolate shop owner’s worst nightmare.
While she was nursing her son for a year, she applied to an esteemed small business program, just three months postpartum, and was accepted. Through their strategic growth program, her sales have doubled. She points to other moments where her village of women in her community showed up for her, from her daycare provider helping on a Sunday morning when her shop was burglarized, to 35 women who showed up to a networking night soon after. “I would not be here without my village…the business world has been very male-dominated, especially at the top,” she says, so her group of women has been a must for self-advocacy and support.
Aiming even higher
Rachel isn’t finished yet. She has her eyes set on growing her corporate gifting business, moving from 95%-foot traffic to much loftier goals. She recently invested in a 3D printer to create custom chocolate molds with company logos. She has further positioned her business for growth through obtaining business certifications. These include completing a Women Business Enterprise (WBE) Certification through Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC*) and a Kosher certification. These aren’t just framed documents on a shop wall — they’ve translated into more business, and meaningful connections, including actor Colin Farrell sending her flowers, she jokes.
Eventually, Julie says TD Bank will be there for Rachel if she ever decides to take another step forward in entrepreneurship or selling it or transitioning the business to the next generation of ownership. “Everybody eventually wants to get to that place,” she says. For Rachel, and others, Julie says they are in it for the long game, as a “trusted advisor” at each stage. For women, and for all, that mentorship can make or break entrepreneurial success. For Rachel, and her chocolates, it made the difference.
*For more information on WBE Certification, visit these resources:
For more on how TD Bank is celebrating Women's Business Month, see here: https://www.td.com/us/en/small...
Disclaimer: This article is based on information available in October 2023 and is subject to change. It is for general information purposes only. Our content is not intended to provide legal, tax, investment, or financial advice or to indicate that a particular TD Bank product or service is available or right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consider talking with a qualified professional.